How caste exclusion is threatening a 2000-year-old art form with UNESCO tag

It's been 87 years since Kerala allowed people of all castes to enter temples but koothambalams inside the shrine where Kutiyattam and Koothu are performed remain the exclusive preserve of two castes.
Koodiyattam performance
Koodiyattam performance
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Close to six decades ago, Kutiyattam, a form of Sanskrit theatre, was thrown open to the secular world when it began to be taught as a course at the Kerala Kalamandalam, now a deemed university and major centre for learning for performing arts based in Cheruthuruthy in Thrissur. Kutiyattam is an umbrella term used to refer to the joint theatre performance by Chakyars and Nangiars, the Chakyar Koothu, traditionally performed by males and Nangiyar Koothu, which is performed by women.

As an art form, Kutiyattam, ritualistically enacted inside a koothambalam – a closed hall inside the temple surrounded by wooden trellis-work –  as per tradition, has over the years undergone several changes in the way it is performed. A koothu was staged outside the four walls of a temple for the first time by Painkulam Rama Chakyar, a pioneer in secularising the art form, in 1949, at the house of the royal family in Kottarakkara. The same year, Guru Mani Madhava Chakyar, another Kutiyattam maestro, invited the wrath of his community by performing for the All India Radio (AIR). Five years later in 1954, Rama Chakyar performed for the AIR. A year later Madhava Chakyar broke the taboo again by performing in a Palakkad village. In 1962, he performed in Madras, the first time it was taken outside the borders of the state.

In 1965, when Kalamandalam launched the Kutiyattam course, at the initiative of Painkulam Rama Chakyar, it had only two students. One of them was Sivan Namboodiri, a Brahmin, who despite the dominant caste status would have been denied tutelage under a traditional Chakyar guru. Scores of students have graduated from Kalamandalam since then after being trained in Kutiyattam, breaking the barriers of caste, religion and gender. 

Temples are open for all but not koothambalams

But even after 87 years of the Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936, which threw open the gates of temples to all Hindus irrespective of their caste, Kutiyattam, when performed inside temples, still continues to be the exclusive preserve of two castes Chakyars and Nambiars. Families with customary rights for Kutiyattam performance in major temples like Vadakkumnathan in Thrissur and Koodalmanikyam in Irinjalakuda do not allow members from other castes to perform inside a koothambalam.

Watch: A Koodiyattam performance / Credit -

The caste exclusivity in the name of tradition is now being challenged by a crop of young artists and critics, who feel that such discrimination has no place in a modern society. “It is not as if they allowed members of the dominant caste. They didn’t allow anyone outside of these two castes, whether they were above them or below them in the caste hierarchy,” says Jishnu Prathap, young Kutiyattam artiste, who has been vocal about ending the caste discrimination in koothambalams as it is threatening the survival of the artform.

But some families like Ammannur, which runs a Gurukulam named after Chachu Chakyar to train students in the art form, are strongly opposed to the move in the name of safeguarding tradition and family rights. In the past they were also against performing it outside of the koothambalam, but that has changed over the years.

“It is the Ammannur family that has been traditionally conducting the performances in both koothambalams. In Irinjalakuda, performances are limited to artistes of two families – Ammannur and Villuvattom – while in Vadakkumnathan, artistes from any Chakyar and Nambiar families may perform,” says Renu Ramanath, a journalist and theatre activist, whose social media post on the discrimination helped trigger a debate in January this year. 

Preserving an art form and a caste privilege

The Ammannur family has made tremendous contributions to the artform by performing, preserving and popularising it “scrupulously maintaining the distinctive styles and modes of presentation in all originality” according to Gopal Venu, popularly known as Venu G, who received his training in Kutiyattam from Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar in 1981. He was also the first from a caste (Nair) lower in the hierarchy than Chakyars and Nambiars to get trained in Kutiyattam.

Madhava Chakyar, belonging to the Ammannur family, was at first not much in favour of taking the art outside the koothambalam or opening the doors to all communities. He learned the art form from his uncle Chachu Chakyar, a Kutiyattam exponent in the early 20th century. “When the temple entry proclamation happened (allowing people of all castes in Hindu religion to enter temples), Chachu Chakyar declared that he would not enter koothambalams anymore. But he told his descendants that they may do so,” says Venu G, a scholar and performer. 

But by the time Venu met him, the art form had faded with fewer and fewer members of  Chakyar families taking interest in it. The book on Ammannur Gurukulam he authored in 1994 speaks about the period of decline when Chakyar families like that of Ammannur were compelled to give up their hereditary vocation and seek other professions to earn a living. When Venu G came into close association with the family in 1977, the only relics were a bundle of tattered costumes and ornaments, two Gurus and one pupil.

They went in search of students among Chakyar families, and returned with two girls – Usha and Rathy. But they, being women, could learn only Nangiar Koothu because of the restrictions imposed by tradition. “With a small financial help from the Kendra Sangeet Natak Akademi, we decided to start the Ammannur Gurukulam. For that you needed the recognition of the Kendra Sangeet Nataka Akademi, which in turn meant that you should have a minimum number of students. You also couldn’t say it’d be limited to certain castes. So that is how students of all castes could learn at the gurukulam. Sooraj Nambiar and Kapila Venu became students there. Now all 13 students at the gurukulam belong to oppressed castes,” Venu said. Kapila Venu, an internationally acclaimed Kutiyattam performer, is Venu's daughter. Sooraj Nambiar, another performer of repute, despite the Nambiar surname, belongs to Nambeesan, another intermediate priestly caste.

“I always used to ask him (Madhava Chakyar), what will Kapila and Sooraj do once they finish their training. Will they be allowed to perform with the Chakyars in a Koothambalam? He’d always say it will happen with time. Once an art connoisseur in Delhi said that he would sponsor the first six programmes if Ammannur Madhava Chakyar would perform with his students from other castes at the koothambalam. Madhava Chakyar had agreed but his family members wouldn’t allow it,” says Venu.

But that change does not seem to have happened except in a few shrines with koothambalams like the Subrahmanya Swamy Temple in Haripad, Alappuzha. Jishnu Prathap, with the help of Kutiyattam Kendra, a centre for promoting Kutiyattam, had been organising monthly performances at the temple allowing artists from all castes to perform since 2016. “We did 50 ‘adiyantharangal’ before the Covid-19 struck with help from KK Gopalakrishnan of the Kutiyattam Kendra. Many a times, artists shell out money from their pockets to organise such festivals,” says Jishnu Prathap.

Chakyarkoothu by Jishnu at Haripad koothambalam / Credit-essarpee photography

Adiyantharangal are the ritualistic performances of Koothu or Kutiyattam, conducted every year by the family associated with the temple, such as the Ammannur family for Koodalmanikyam and Vadakkumnathan. When the issue of caste discrimination was taken up by the Koodalmanikyam Devaswom Board, the family took a stand that ‘adiyanthirangal’ should be exclusive to the families and members of other castes can perform ‘kazcha koothukal’, which are performed for an audience. 

“We are still holding discussions about it. The Ammannur family and the thantris gave it in writing that they were against the proposal. So the status quo continues,” says Pradeep Menon, chairman of the Koodalmanikyam Devaswom Board.

The critics believe that the opening up of performance space inside the temple and adequate remuneration for artists are vital for Kutiyattam’s survival. Adiyanthirangal receives financial support from the temple devaswom boards and, though highly inadequate, is a source of income for the artists, who suffered a deadly blow during the Covid-19 years as festivals were curtailed and tourism came to a stop. The Moozhikkulam temple pays Rs 5,000 a day for 21 days of adiyantharangal. Presently, the Kutiyattam Kendra has in its official records, the names of nearly 100 active performers of Koothu and Kutiyattam, including mizhavu artists. 

The biggest loss to artists who are not allowed inside koothambalams is the denial of knowledge and its practice, says Kalamandalam Ratheesh Bhas, an artist based in Thrissur. “When you perform outside a koothambalam it is very different. A complete performance is not possible, and it is often reduced to a shortened version. There is no use in repeating that this is an artform recognized by the Unesco when there is little support from the government or the devaswom boards,” he says. 

Kutiyattam treats single acts from ancient Sanskrit plays as full-fledged performances, which take several days to be enacted. The text of the play is minimal and performance is based on manuals called Attaprakarams and Kramadeepikas codified centuries ago and preserved by Chakyar and Nambiar families. 

The lack of opportunities and absence of decent remuneration has forced many artists to look for other jobs.

Ratheesh’s wife Sangeetha is a Nangiyar Koothu artist and an alumnus of Kalamandalam. She says that her batch had six women who graduated but only she continued as a practitioner of the art form. The rest ventured into other fields, because of lack of opportunity and job possibilities.

Kalamandalam Sangeetha / Credit - Thri shiva perur

Pramod, a sculptor, whose 15-year-old son is a student at the Ammannur Gurukulam, says that every art form had to change with time and become more democratic. Pramod did not want to reveal his caste identity but belongs to a community lower in the hierarchy which had no access to such traditional gurukulams. "Kutiyattam used to be performed only inside temples and the artistes were not supposed to cross oceans. Both have happened. It was due to the struggle undertaken by these traditional communities that the art form lasted for hundreds of years. That may be why they are reluctant to suddenly let go of their space and admit other communities. But it's the practice of the art form that makes it art just like it is the practice of studying that makes one a scholar. How can scholarship (gaining knowledge) have a religion or caste?" asks Pramod.

He concedes that the traditional communities may find it hard to accept new changes overnight. But it is also true that many among the new generation in these communities do not choose to be Koodiyattam performers, he adds. "So they may not be able to sustain the dance form. There is a need to take all of this into consideration and absorb the changes," he says.

Heritage structures in a state of disrepair

The koothambalams are built to suit the performance in a closed space, taking into account the distance between the artist and the viewer, and the lighting. “Audience should get a close view since even minute expressions of the artist are very significant in Koothu / Koodiyattam. Another aspect is acoustics, as the artists can be heard without a microphone. Lighting is also important. Traditionally, only a single lit lamp is allowed in the room, and the performances may go on all night. The structure is also based on the Natyasastra (the ancient text on performing arts),” says Vinodkumar MM, an architect who has been involved in the renovation of koothambalams in Vadakkumnathan and Guruvayur temples.

Kerala has around 16 koothambalams but many of them, heritage structures two to three centuries old, are in a state of neglect. The koothambalam is supposed to be as sacred as the srikovil (sanctum sanctorum, where the deity is kept, but is often found littered with waste, beedi stubs and empty bottles of liquor, says Venu G. ``If you go inside one, you will find how badly it’s kept because of not being in use for so long. In Kottayam Thirunakkara temple – one of the first to allow other caste performers – we saw beedis and liquor bottles strewn around. We cleaned it with brooms ourselves,” says Venu.

Role of Devaswom Boards

Venu also feels that it is up to the Devaswom Boards to bring about a change. He mentions the opposition at the time of temple entry, when people of all castes were allowed inside after centuries of being treated as ‘untouchables’. “Still, the temple entry proclamation was issued. Similarly, the Devaswom Board should take a stand,” he says.

The devaswom boards took over the control of temples when monarchy ended and an elected government came to power. However, they are limited to being trustees, protecting the deity – considered a minor citizen – and the property. The religious affairs are still managed by the families associated with the temples.

However, there is a legal point in favour of allowing all castes to perform in temples, if one takes the Devaswom Acts into consideration. The Kerala High Court referred to the Guruvayur Devaswom Act, 1971 in the case of Guruvayur Devaswom Employees' vs State Of Kerala And Others, 1999. It refers to sections from the Act which says that members of the Board should be believers of temple worship and not discriminate on the basis of caste. “Every member of the Committee before entering into his office had to subscribe to an oath to the effect that he swears in the name of God that he professes the Hindu religion and believes in temple worship and that he did not believe in the practice of untouchability,” says the Act.

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